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Transition to Academia IV: Meeting the Media

One of the biggest joys and challenges of my first 3 years in academia has been the chance to hang out my own research shingle and build my research program from scratch. While I have continued to publish a steady stream of papers from my doctoral career, I spent the past few years deliberately avoiding new collaborative research with my former advisor and colleagues. This has permitted me to strike off in my own research direction toward developing and patenting a new Thermal Control Suit for investigating human thermoregulation and protecting humans from thermal extremes. While I thought I was working in relative isolation in my lab (it lacks windows for that extra "dungeon" ambience), it was quite surprising how quickly the media found me. As a result of a small press release in our university's newspaper last fall, I quickly began receiving numerous print and TV media requests, culminating in two nationally televised interviews this past spring. While it was an enjoyable experience overall and greatly increased my profile among my colleagues and industrial partners, I found that there were a number of things to consider and hidden traps to negotiate.

First off, do not try to deal with the media on your own. GET HELP! Nearly every university will have a public relations department, whose job is to publicize their researchers. They are an invaluable resource, as they are generally highly experienced in dealing with the peculiarities of the media. Wherever possible, I saved time from fielding general requests for information by funneling such requests to the PR department. Ideally, you would have called them several months ago before your research begins making waves, in order to give them time to help you prepare the best "marketing strategy" for your research. It is vital to build up this long-term relationship with your PR department, as they are not going to do a good job if they do not know you or what you can do and offer. Therefore, periodically send them a brief update on some of the research that you are or will be doing (jargon-free, of course), and they may even pick out some items that they might pitch to media outlets on your behalf.

It may seem cold and calculating, but it pays to be strategic in who you agree to grant interviews to. Media thrives on the novelty factor and is much less likely to broadcast "old" news already covered by somebody else. So no matter how innovative your research, with the possible exception of making alien contact or cold fusion, you will be in the news for only a very short while before interest fades. Therefore, if you are going to cash in your 15 minutes of fame, you might as well make the biggest splash possible and give priority to the biggest media outlets. For this reason, while I had nothing binding me, I decided to give the first interview to a national science television show as opposed to the local news that could not guarantee me national exposure.

With a marketing strategy in place, the next task is to prepare for the actual interview and to get comfortable in front of the camera. Unless you have been doing media interviews for many years, the process can be a nerve-wracking one. For example, I was told to sit still and not to make major movements or fidget in front of the camera, yet speak naturally and be animated! This is again where the PR department is invaluable. They found out from the media outlet what style of interview they wanted, and we simulated giving that type of interview and reviewing the results until I felt comfortable. The process of explaining my research to them was also highly instructive, in that it forced me to explain the research clearly and in lay language. They also came up with a number of questions that I either would never have thought of or would not have considered interesting, saving me being surprised by the actual interview.

On the other hand, do not over-prepare for the interview! At one point, I was so worried about what might be asked that I wrote up six single-spaced pages of questions and my planned responses. After I wrote it, I realized how silly it was. You're not delivering a speech, so toss the prepared script away. However, preparing your own Q&A still might be a useful exercise to get you thinking about how you might answer generic questions about your research. This is especially useful as you try to explain to the PR department what it is that you actually do.

After preparing yourself for the interview, it is time to prepare your lab for the big time. Realize how much time it takes to prepare for different styles of interviews. Especially for TV interviews, you might have to create a mock experiment to run during the taping, and sometimes create representative data and screen shots that would look good on TV. Again, the PR department will have a better handle on what aspects of your research or lab would be the most telegenic, and can work with the media in feeding them select shots and scenes. Equally important, scientists are stereotyped enough as it is, so clean up the lab and ditch the lab coat! My lab was a mess of wires and electronic components from the prototype of the thermal suit that I was building, and required a couple of days of frenzied cleaning to look presentable. As a treat for my lab personnel, I made up golf shirts with our lab logo that they wore during the background shots. Part of your reason for giving interviews is to market your research and your abilities to not just the public but potentially people who might contract your work, so it pays to look your best.

Before the camera rolls, it is also imperative that you consider the implications of interviews on your ability to publish your research or to apply for patents. As soon as your interview airs or appears in print, your invention or idea enters the public domain, and whatever you say will henceforth no longer be considered "novel" and "unique," one of the primary criteria for patent applications. So while it may be a good ego boost to have your high school science teacher see you on the news, be careful to weigh your words. Two media outlets originally contacted me last October as a result of a small press release from my PR department, even though my invention was nowhere near ready. I managed to keep them waiting for nearly 6 months, mainly by convincing them that I didn't have anything ready that would look good on television. It was a difficult job juggling the media's demands for information versus the need to maintain some level of confidentiality, and it required establishing a very open line of communication between myself, my patent agents, and the PR department. It also caused some friction with the media, who bristled at even the perception that we might be withholding any information. At the last second, we managed to pull together enough information and data to submit a provisional patent, permitting the interviewer and myself to relax a lot and for me to answer questions freely.

Remember, it is your research and your time that the media is requesting. So while it is good to cooperate as much as possible, it is also your right to demand some control over the process. Have fun, relax, and remember to set your VCR!

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